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It sometimes feels like 2020 has been the Year Of Bad News. There have been almost no weeks since March in which we haven’t been told at least one awful truth, from new coronavirus outbreaks being announced to the ever-depressing view of the economy. It has been increasingly hard to keep a positive outlook when there appears to be an endless barrage of terrible things happening.
But despite the scary stuff happening across the world, there’s a pretty amazing beacon of hope here in Australia. The accelerating outbreak in Victoria has been crushed, with no new cases for nearly two weeks. For some context, in July both Victoria and Belgium were recording roughly the same per-capita number of new Covid-19 infections per day. While Belgium is now experiencing a truly horrific outbreak, Victoria has almost no active cases at all.
The cry of “doughnut!” – slang for a day with no cases – rings out on Twitter daily. It is wonderful to see.
But that brings us to the question of what to do now? With Covid cases down to just a tiny trickle across Australia, we are arguably in the best position in the world to decide our fate over the coming months. But there are still many hard decisions to make.
The obvious first point is that clearly, we can’t let down our guard. Based on the experiences in China, New Zealand, and elsewhere we can say with some certainty that the virus is impressively sneaky, and can re-emerge even months after it has mostly gone away. There is no guarantee when it comes to a pandemic, and it’s more than likely that if we completely relax, we will see the case numbers creeping back up again all too soon.
Beyond that, it’s quite hard to say exactly what path we should follow. There are templates to copy – Vietnam, South Korea, Uruguay, Taiwan – where countries have performed amazingly well and continue to record extremely low case numbers. It is always hard to transfer policies across cultures, and what might work in Seoul may not be quite as useful in Sydney, but it is clear that long-term suppression is not out of the question. The one thing that every country that has done well appears to have in common, from Uganda to Mongolia, is quick and decisive action alongside a sustained public health response.
This is even more true when you consider that the good news isn’t limited just to the doughnuts. Just on Monday night, Pfizer announced that the interim results from their large vaccine trial indicated that it was extremely effective at preventing disease, with few serious side-effects to worry about. Now, this was just an interim analysis, and the trial is ongoing. But it bodes very well for this vaccine as well as vaccine development more broadly. The early promise that we could have an effective immunisation against Covid by the first few months of 2021 no longer seems so far-fetched, and while crafting the vaccine is only the first part of the challenge – getting everyone vaccinated is a big task, it may not provide long-lasting protection – it is still a very strong indication that normalcy may be much closer than we had imagined.
What this means for our current restrictions, of course, is quite hard to say. A vaccine might be ready soon, but we know that completely getting rid of restrictions would probably cause a huge increase in Covid-19 cases very quickly. Social distancing of some kind is here to stay, at least for the immediate future, and we will have to maintain our very high levels of testing and contact tracing for a while. We will probably be celebrating Christmas with some restrictions still in place, especially on high-risk events such as parties in enclosed spaces, although we may be once again travelling between the states by then and perhaps even overseas in a travel bubble.
So what do we do next? Well, I’ve said it before but I think it bears repeating: Australia is in one of the best positions in the world right now. We have very few daily cases despite impressive testing levels, one of the strongest economies, and a fantastic scientific team backing us up. It’s still a long road, and there are many hurdles in the way, but I think we can safely say that we are ending 2020 on a high note. We need only look at our friends in Europe to see how much worse our Christmas could have been. Australia may not be out of the woods entirely, and we definitely have to keep our guard up to stay as safe as we are now, but I think we can be cautiously optimistic about what 2021 will bring.
As an epidemiologist, it feels like I’ve spent the entire year being the bearer of sad tidings, so it is an unexpected delight to, for once, be giving you all some good news. Well done, Australia.
• Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz is an epidemiologist working in chronic disease
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Well done, Australia: Covid cases are down to a tiny trickle. What’s next? | Coronavirus